Joe and Terry discuss the season five finale of HBO Max’s Search Party.
Spoilers for the series finale “Revelation”…
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I’d like to begin this review of the final episode of Search Party with its synopsis, which reads: “With New York City under siege, the gang’s fight for survival finds them crossing paths with an unlikely savior.” While that’s not untrue, Terry, the synopsis definitely makes it seem as though Chantal (Clare McNulty) – in full T2 mode – will play a much larger part in the narrative than she actually does.
It’s a challenge that the whole of “Revelation” struggles with. It’s easy to admire the HBO Max series for leaning into its “doomsday enlightenment cult inadvertently leads to the end of the world” plot, but trying to satisfactorily wrap all of this up in a single episode feels like a fool’s errand. And while overall ”Revelation” offers a surprising amount of closure for its idiot millennial foursome, it’s hard not to be mildly dissatisfied with this compared to the brilliance of the S4 finale.
Perhaps this would play better if we had not already glimpsed the perfection of Dory (Alia Shawkat)’s funeral, complete with its myriad of guest stars from previous seasons. It’s impossible to forget the visceral impact of seeing Dory standing apart from everyone and surveying the damage (and, yes, the love) that she caused when she was on earth. In hindsight, S04E10 “The Shadows” is a nearly flawless half hour of TV.
Turning to this series finale, I would argue that there are two similarly satisfying moments in “Revelation”:
1) When the group has been rescued by Chantal from the zompocalypse and are “safe” underground. Dory goes into a near fugue as she realizes the depth to which her ambition and narcissism had affected others as she repeats “I just wanted…I just wanted…”
What she wanted is something even she can’t quite formulate, but it’s somehow less important than the “I” statement. Because it’s always been about Dory, hasn’t it? All the way back to S1 when she instigated the wild goose chase to Montreal through to this world-ending event – what Dory wanted was always the priority, even when it was evident that desires came at the cost of multiple body bags.
2) The second effective scene is the very last shot. There are only a few brief scenes in series creators Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers‘ script dedicated to the aftermath of the apocalypse; it’s enough to convey that the group has retained their trademark narcissism and obliviousness with subtle nods to their own accountability.
Portia (Meredith Hagner) sings “on Broadway” – aka an empty theatre – while Elliott (John Early) ponders a move to Los Angeles because they have less ill-repute there. And, in a turn that plays in a surprisingly judgment-free way, Dory and Drew (John Reynolds) have recently wed.
Everyone is mostly fine…until the foursome walks past a lengthy memorial wall of Missing posters that confirms how many people have died because of their actions. “I hate this wall” Elliot muses, pressing on as Drew, in classic ambivalent/nonchalant fashion, replies “It is what it is.”
As the others walk away to new and different lives, though, Dory stops and stares.
It’s important to note how ambiguous Dory’s expression is. Is she upset? Is she unmoved? I read it as reluctant acknowledgement…which eventually gives way to Drew’s “It is what it is” response. She turns away from the camera as she walks offscreen and the credits roll for the final time.
I find this response inscrutable; in effect, it leaves the whole series on a note of ambivalence. And while this end won’t please audiences who are looking for closure or punishment for these characters, it somehow feels appropriate. Search Party was a tiny show that took huge narrative swings, but it was never afraid of making its characters morally ambiguous or leaving things unsaid.
So while “Resolution” doesn’t come together with the same grace and artistry as last season’s finale “The Shadows”, I admire Search Party’s resistance to wrap everything up with a tidy bow.
Terry, I’ll turn it over to you: did you appreciate how hard the show leaned into its zombie apocalypse? Were you frustrated, like me, at how hyper-accelerated everything was? (The finale barely clocks in at 20 minutes, making it one of the shortest episodes of the season) And did you enjoy the cameos from former characters or did they pale in comparison to last season?
I think you hit the nail on the head with your initial assessment, Joe. It is difficult to fully appreciate this show’s incredibly quick finale when Season 4 ended on such a powerful and emotional note. That note made me cry and feel rage and sorrow at both Dory and her friends, who inadvertently left her to die.
Contrasted with that, this feels somewhat anticlimactic to the point that I wondered if the show creators fully expected (wanted?) it to end with Season 4 and it was a last minute decision that spurred them to include Dory’s rebirth. Pure speculation, obviously, but this season feels so fly-by-the-seat-of-their-pants breathless in its execution compared to the more methodically paced and scripted previous seasons that I have to wonder.
I went back to re-read our final recap of Season 4 and it really brought the problems with this episode (and season?) to light. I was planning on referencing the iconic line from Season 1 that really set the series off (““Everybody can tell me what I can’t do, but nobody can tell me what I can do”) because “Revelations” gives us an answer to that question. Dory discovers throughout the series that she’s able to make people bend to her will, to the point that it is unsurprising she would one day lead a doomsday cult. But that’s also a theme that was more succinctly and emotionally answered in Season 4. In fact, I brought up that line in our recaps of Season 4.
And that’s the rub: everything I would say about the thematic weight of this season was already expounded upon in Season 4…including an homage to the missing person sign that started the show. It’s as if Season 5 doesn’t really have much new to say about this crew of narcissistic misfits that it didn’t already (and expertly) dissect in Season 4. You’re absolutely right to bring up Dory’s continued “I” statements. Her focus on the self in the midst of a world-ending event shows that, from the very beginning of the series to its post apocalyptic end, Dory might not have learned a single thing. There’s a very Seinfeld feeling to the way this episode ends; the world in tatters, the gang still spouting meaningless bon mots about the tragedy of it all.
Except that maybe Dory has changed a little bit…or at the very least, “Revelations” ultimately gives her maybe a bit more humanity than the rest of the gang. The one moment that broke me in Season 4 was when Dory was suffocating in the house while her friends were outside, basically deciding whether Dory should be saved or not. Whether she deserved redemption. They ultimately left her, not realizing that she was dying. Here, we get somewhat of a reverse of that sequence as the group tries to get into the safety zone. Portia has a knick on her arm and is immediately pulled away from the group. As Dory, Elliott and Drew walk away, Elliott says, “we just left her” and Dory comes to a complete stop.
“No. We can’t leave anyone behind,” she declares and takes off running.
This is probably the defining moment of this season, especially in contrast to the ending of Season 4 where the group decides Dory’s fate and finds her wanting. I can’t help but think that Season 5 would have played out much differently had her friends not given up on her and saved Dory like she ultimately saves Portia here.
The rest of the episode was fun in the way that it’s fun to watch your favorite characters get teleported to a completely different genre than they initially were in. I loved seeing a zombie apocalypse filtered through the lens of Search Party, even though I wish they had structured the show a little differently to allow this apocalypse to unfold more. It’s such a hasty bit of storytelling unfolding over two very short episodes that it doesn’t leave much room for a denouement to really bring it together.
I kept thinking about the way Season 4’s finale gave its characters (and viewers) time to process everything. Season 5 spends maybe 5 of its 20 minutes wrapping things up. I have to admit, though, that I would absolutely sign up for a sixth season of them trying to find a missing person in the zombie apocalypse.
A few miscellaneous bits. After introducing Aspen (Kayden Koshelev) as a killer child that was maybe bio-engineered in a lab and who wouldn’t surprise me to have 666 tattooed on his forehead, it annoys me that he just ended up as a zombie. Drew’s line, “why is he obsessed with me?!” as Zombie Aspen lept at him made me chuckle, since the kid creepily wanted Drew to help him in the bathroom early on in the season. But his demonic/cherubic personality is a plotline that doesn’t really go anywhere. Also, as far as cameos go, I did laugh at Zombie Gail (Christine Taylor), Dory’s one-time boss. “She was so cool!” they say in agreement.
Finally, I did appreciate the narcissism-off between Dory and Chantal at the end of the world, with both of them telling each other, “No, the world’s ending because of me!” I had to imagine that The Jesper Society up in Maine probably thought the world was ending because of them. It’s a thematic moment that fully explores how everyone feels like they’re the protagonist in the World’s Story…though, to be fair, the world is ending because of Dory and her friends.
So we’re at the end…like, for real this time. And I’ll shoot it back to you, Joe. What do you give this season as a whole? And since this is the ending, what do you give the entire series of Search Party? Any lingering thoughts about our little foursome of loveable idiots?
It’s hardly surprising that I’ve frequently used the word “rollercoaster” or “wild ride” when I try to sell people on the show, Terry. Search Party has been a slice of joy in my life for all of these years because it is such an audacious piece of entertainment. No other show has reinvented itself so confidently or so intriguingly, so while it may seem like we’ve come down particularly hard on this final season, it’s just because this show has been really important to both of us throughout its run.
With that said, this final season does feel the weakest (or maybe just the slightest?) to me. I had really high hopes for Dory as a cult leader and while the show made some smart, cheeky observations about the intersection between religion, obsession and social media influencers, that storyline still wound up feeling a bit neutered. I can’t help but feel like there were opportunities left on the table here, and although these last two episodes of zombie apocalypse were fun, I ultimately don’t think they do enough to pay off the season or the legacy of the series overall.
For me, S5 gets a B-. And my rankings overall:
Season 3 > Season 1 > Season 4 > Season 2 > Season 5
Terry, what say you?
I don’t think many shows can say they’ve reinvented their title and what it means, let alone the genre of the season itself, as much as Search Party. I dug the first season, really enjoyed the second, fell in love with the third, cried in the fourth and shook my head in pleasant befuddlement in the fifth. It’s one of my favorite shows filled with literally my favorite group of characters I’ve seen on TV in awhile. So while Season Five doesn’t quite stick the landing, I can’t say that I didn’t enjoy it and I’m sad to say goodbye.
So for me, Season Five also gets a B-, which isn’t bad by any stretch. If you can give into the abject buffoonery of the season, you’ll find a lot to enjoy in this victory lap. And if I had to rank the seasons:
Season 3 (A+) > Season 4 (A) > Season 2 (A-) > Season 1 (B+) > Season 5 (B-).
It’s all subjective for me, looking back at the seasons after completing the show and truthfully 2 and 1 are very, very close. But I’ll always remember Shalita Grant’s magnificent performance in Season Three and the soul-crushing feelings that Season 4 left me with more than self-help cults led by Parker Posey or zombies or Ron Livingston.
Hat’s off to Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers for creating an iconic comedy. I can’t wait to see what they create next.
Search Party has now concluded its run on HBO Max